They may say that two is too many, but a dedicated team of intrepid bartenders head into double figures in search of the Martini holy grail. Clinton Cawood prays for salvation
Gins are often evaluated in terms of their suitability for that most classic of classic cocktails, the Martini. But in the increasingly diverse world of juniper spirits, what makes them so? Is it punchy botanical notes, or a high abv? And what are the characteristics to avoid?
To find out, we selected 10 gins with varying flavour profiles and made them into 10 identical Martinis, using the same vermouth and the same ratio.
A panel of very willing bartenders then evaluated these Martinis, revealing a complex set of criteria to take into account when selecting a gin for this classic cocktail. As their varied conclusions show, there’s certainly no right answer, but we’re definitely one step closer to achieving the elusive perfect Martini.
HOW IT WORKS
We called in a selection of gins, all available in the UK. These were tasted neat, before being made into a Martini using a 5:1 ratio with Noilly Prat Original Dry, and no garnish.
Tom Byrne, Charlotte’s Bistro; Rudi Carraro, consultant; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Rusty Cerven, The Gibson; Steve Lawson, MASH; Richard O’Brien, Original Sin; Alessandro Rocci, Whistling Shop; Christina Schneider, Som Saa
Beefeater’s premium offering, with its inclusion of Japanese sencha and Chinese green teas, was nevertheless quite traditional when tasted neat, with a good balance of citrus and juniper. The term ‘old school’ was used more than once. A contender for a Martini, but some thought it might be better off lengthened with tonic or in a Rickey.
In reality, this made for an unusual but very appealing Martini, with a touch of sweetness and a savoury note. None of these characteristics were noticeable in the neat gin, but maybe that’s down to the tea in the botanical mix. One taster thought this needed to be bolstered by more vermouth, while another suggested a lemon twist would bring it together.
45% abv, £24.69/70cl, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484
Hailing from Belgium, Copperhead keeps things simple with its botanicals, using just juniper, cardamom, orange peel, angelica and coriander. Our tasters consistently identified the sweet citrus notes, as well as some cardamom spice and a good, solid hit of juniper. There was also a noticeable floral note.
Those classic notes served this gin well in a Martini, creating a clean, fresh drink, with abundant juniper and citrus. That said, while most liked how the juniper came through, some thought it was overpowering when mixed. Also emphasised in the cocktail was that floral note, which was a panel-divider.
40% abv, £39.95/50cl, 10 Degrees C, 01442 863661
East London Liquor Company Premium Gin: Batch 1
One of two gins in East London Liquor Company’s premium tier, this one uses Darjeeling tea. On its own this was a complex spirit, with tasters describing notes of lemongrass, ginger, candied orange, cinnamon, saffron and pink peppercorns. It’s a bold, spicy and warming gin, and one that was predicted to make a good introductory Martini.
That boldness served it well – this was a viscous Martini with bright orange notes and some interesting anise character. The consensus was that this was unusual but very appealing. A good choice for a Gibson, said one taster.
45% abv, £30.95-£35/70cl, East London Liquor Company, 020 3011 0980
Flying the flag for Scotland in this tasting was quirky crowd-pleaser Hendrick’s, characterised by its rose and cucumber infusion. The former was most evident, with a number of tasters describing floral notes on an otherwise reserved nose. The palate was more substantial, with some grassiness and spice. More than one panellist predicted this had the right characteristics for a good Martini.
And they were right – although, according to most of our tasters, that’s all this was – a good Martini, with no distinguishing features. ‘Polite’ and ‘crowd-pleasing’ said our panel, suggesting that the most harmonious gins might get lost in a classic Martini.
41.4% abv, £27/70cl, William Grant & Sons, 020 8332 1188
With its three separate methods for extracting juniper, you’d expect a complex spirit – and that’s exactly what tasters described. The juniper was present but not overpowering, with herbaceousness and a generous amount of citrus. On tasting, someone thought it might be best in a Gimlet.
This turned out to be probably the best Martini of the day, however. One taster after the next praised this ‘old-school Dry Martini’ for its juniper-forward, classic flavour profile – clean, incisive, complex and mouth-watering. Everything you want in a Martini. ‘There was enough going on to have a few without getting bored,’ said one taster.
‘I finished it,’ said another.
45% abv, £35.95/70cl, Moorland Spirit Company, hepple-gin.com
Made, unsurprisingly, in London’s Bermondsey, this entrant from Jensen’s was mainly described in terms of its prominent juniper notes. This was joined by bright some coriander and citrus on a punchy palate with good texture. All the makings of a great Martini on paper. >>
It certainly made a capable one – the prominent juniper carried through – but it lacked greatness. A different spec to bring the gin to the fore was necessary here. This was, however, described by one taster as a ‘breakfast Martini’. We’ll page the Maestro...
43% abv, £25/70cl, Instil Drinks Co, 020 7449 1685
The London No 1
Most noticeable for its blue colour (which it gets from the gardenia flower), The London No 1 is made by Thames Distillers’ Charles Maxwell, who uses 12 botanicals, including bergamot and almond. It had a rounded, sweet palate, with a good whack of juniper.
Some thought this was improved in a Martini, with that juniper note showing really well, and with some bright citrus notes emerging. If there was any criticism, it was that the temperature and dilution resulted in a Martini that wasn’t the most complex. But sometimes a no-fuss, juniper-forward Martini is all you need. This one just happens to be blue...
47.3% abv, £30/70cl, Cellar Trends, 01283 217703
Made in Holland using six botanicals, this was a punchy, grown-up gin, with lots of juniper and grapefruit. It had a rounded mouthfeel, but a clean, dry finish. ‘Classy,’ said one taster.
Unexpectedly, this made a divisive Martini. Some loved its balance of citrus and spice, with a herbal note in the background and noticeable juniper throughout. Others were thrown by a peppery, vegetal note, and a richness they felt didn’t interact well with the vermouth. This would probably excel with a different ratio of gin to vermouth.
46% abv, £36.50/70cl, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 280 2440
Star of Bombay
Bombay Sapphire’s younger sibling, with the highest abv in this tasting, kicked off with fresh citrus and juniper, leading to a touch of anise, more citrus, and a solid hit of juniper. Tasters thought it would be an excellent choice for a Martini.
But this had a mixed response, best summarised by one description as a ‘bartender’s Martini’. The high alcohol and prominent juniper worked in its favour, but some thought the Martini wasn’t an improvement on the neat gin, and wanted this in a wetter ratio, with a twist, or in a different cocktail altogether.
47.5% abv, £35/70cl, Bacardi Martini, 01962 762100
Tanqueray No. Ten
Tanqueray’s premium expression is defined by its use of camomile, as well as whole citrus fruit. While those citrus notes were evident, it was a less-traditional herbal note that dominated, along with a pepperiness and a floral note, presumably from the camomile.
So it was unsurprising this made a Martini that divided opinion. Some enjoyed the enhanced camomile, while others felt the vermouth brought out a caramel sweetness in the gin. Those in favour heaped praise on its herbal notes and juniper, thinking the resultant Martini greater than the sum of its parts.
47% abv, £39/70cl, Diageo Reserve, 020 8978 6000
Many thanks to the team at The Gibson for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.
- This will come as no surprise to serious gin aficionados, but juniper is in there for a reason. The gins most focused on juniper characteristics often made the best Martinis.
- However, juniper brings its own problems as well. In some cases, excessive juniper didn’t balance well with the vermouth, or resulted in a one-note cocktail.
- The abv turned out not to be as important a consideration as we might have initially assumed. Botanical intensity was a much more important factor, and some of the lower-abv gins did great service here, as long as the flavour profile was right.
- Crucially, these Martinis were all made to the same spec, and most of these gins, in the hands of the right bartender, and with the right ratio, right vermouth, and appropriate garnish, could be made into a good Martini. Our tasters are unlikely to underestimate the transformative powers of a lemon twist after this tasting, for example.
- The panel was divided into two camps: those who thought a distinctive, unusual gin stood up well in a Martini, and those who preferred a balanced, traditional gin. The distinctive gins often made for a divisive cocktail that some loved and others loathed, while the classic characteristics in a traditional gin were sometimes in danger of producing an unremarkable Martini.
TOM BYRNE, CHARLOTTE’S BISTRO
‘What I’m looking for in a Martini gin is something unique. We see new gins every week, so you want something different – whether that’s lots of juniper, or something blue. Many of these gins completely changed in a Martini. You’d find the main element in both the neat gin and the Martini, but everything else was up for grabs.’
RUDI CARRARO, CONSULTANT
‘You always have to bear in mind that the Martini is the simplest drink to make; but at the same time it’s very difficult to make a good Martini. I personally don’t like very aromatic gins in my Martinis – I think they work better for G&Ts. It’s important to have a well-balanced gin, where the botanicals and abv don’t overtake each other.’
CLINTON CAWOOD, IMBIBE
‘If there was one thing this tasting proved, it was that the Martini isn’t a particularly forgiving drink. When these worked they were incredible, but a wrong note in the gin was often magnified in the cocktail. Balance and harmony didn’t always work in a gin’s favour, either – boldness was often rewarded.’
RUSTY CERVEN, THE GIBSON
‘Complexity in the gin isn’t necessarily important for a Martini – it can be overpowering. It’s great when you’re making a G&T, but for a Martini you need balance, whether that’s balance in the gin itself, or between the vermouth and the gin. For the very powerful gins here, I’d rather use them in a Collins-style drink.’
STEVE LAWSON, MASH
‘I think a complex and unusual gin is important when making a Martini, along with heavy juniper. Texture is also key – some oiliness can be a benefit. Ultimately, though, some gins are just better in built, long drinks.’
RICHARD O’BRIEN, ORIGINAL SIN
‘For a Martini I’m not necessarily looking for a high abv, but rather something with punch and spice. I want it to push through – it’s important that the gin shines. And it’s good to get the punch from the botanicals rather than the alcohol.’
ALESSANDRO ROCCI, WHISTLING SHOP
‘A Martini should be crisp, cold and silky-smooth. I’d avoid gins that have overpowering flavours or aromas. Classic London dry gins generally have more juniper and citrus notes, which I think are a perfect match for the herbs and botanicals present in the vermouth.’
CHRISTINA SCHNEIDER, SOM SAA
‘The gins that were very different might impress when tasted neat, but they might not work very well when mixed. Those that were too exotic in terms of botanicals didn’t work well in a Martini. Ultimately, though, everyone has their perfect Martini, even if they don’t like Martinis. They just haven’t had the right one yet.’